Elvis Presley’s car has broken down and a cowboy’s career is over. In the days of Donald Trump, movies showing at the Cannes festival are taking a long, hard look at the American Dream.
Film-makers from France to China — as well as at home — are finding fertile ground in a country whose politics is itself a daily drama.
In “Promised Land”, a documentary almost as brash and bold as the US president, award-winning film-maker Eugene Jarecki takes a road trip around America in a gleaming 1963 Rolls-Royce once owned by the king of rock ‘n’ roll.
For Jarecki, who saw the film premiere to strong reviews at the world’s biggest film festival this weekend, there is no better metaphor for America than Elvis’ demise from global sex icon to a tubby Las Vegas performer who died on the toilet.
“America had become a fat Elvis,” the leftwing US director told AFP. “We had been beautiful once, and we rose to a height too young too fast.”
Part music documentary and part blistering indictment of the state of the nation, “Promised Land” was shot during the 2016 presidential campaign.
It sees a series of interviewees reflect on America’s problems, from working-class residents in Presley’s Mississippi hometown to Public Enemy rap star Chuck D and actors Alec Baldwin, Ashton Kutcher and Ethan Hawke.
Trump looms large over the film, which intersperses footage of the then-candidate with performances from musicians crammed into the car as it trundles around the country.
The symbolism is lost on no one when the handsome Rolls breaks down on the road.
Jarecki has spent years interviewing people warning that America was broken, but he is not the only director at Cannes to tackle life on the margins.
French film-maker Vladimir de Fontenay was inspired by his own US road trips to make “Mobile Homes”, the tale of a young mother and son who live between motels on the Canadian border and unoccupied houses that they break into to sleep.
The idea of America as a land of opportunity is stripped bare. The eight-year-old boy in the film, named Bone, is never at school; his education consists of his mother, played by British actress Imogen Poots, teaching him to flee diners without paying the bill.
In “The Rider”, director Chloe Zhao also paints a picture of insecurity as she follows aspiring rodeo stars in Trump-voting South Dakota.
Brady — played by real-life cowboy Brady Jandreau — is a talented bucking bronco rider who faces giving up his dreams for a job at a supermarket checkout after suffering a near-fatal accident. At home is a father who drinks and gambles, frittering away cash that could otherwise be used to support his mentally-disabled sister.
Zhao calls herself “as liberal as a person can get” but said she wanted to use a personal story to show a different side of a US heartland demonised for backing Trump.
“Brady and a lot of young cowboys did not vote for Trump, but their parents did,” the Beijing-born director told AFP. “Some of the most hard-working, generous people I’ve met in my whole life didn’t really want to vote for him, but did.
“My calling is to step onto the other side and humanise and portray the struggles of many Trump voters,” she said, adding she has “a lot of compassion” for rural and rustbelt Americans who feel their identity is slipping away from them.
Zhao’s America is far away from what she called the “white picket fence” ideal, but she rejects the idea that her film shows a country without hope.
One of her characters, she points out, is a cowboy friend of Brady’s who has been paralysed after his own riding accident — yet insists he will one day return to the saddle.
“What I love about America is not necessarily the American dream but the fact that there’s so much spirit of fighting to continue to dream once the dreams are broken,” Zhao said.
Jarecki too, while describing Trump as “a monster at the helm”, said there was reason for hope.
“Trump is a cry for help by America,” he told AFP.
“It’s only been a hundred days and this guy has been torn apart by the press, by everyday people showing up at town hall meetings, by protests of hundreds of thousands to millions of people. The courts have stood up to Trump.
“That’s the fabric of the American dream,” he said.